Zionist Organization Piles on Criticism to UCI Student Meeting with Palestinian Leader Aziz Duwaik in 2009

UC Irvine officials have enough trouble keeping up with the current twists and turns in the thorny relationship between campus Jews and Muslims. For instance, there is the annual Israel Apartheid Week staged by the Muslim Student Union, and the current prosecution of Muslim students for disrupting a speech by Israel's ambassador to the U.S.

Now, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), which by now ought to just rent office space on campus, is calling on the university to end and the Jewish Federation of Orange County to stop funding a campus program aimed at easing tensions--all because of a student visit to Israel two years ago.

The Olive Tree Initiative aims to promote dialogue and discussion regarding the Israeli-Arab conflict by sending students to the Middle East. The idea is young people will gain personal perspective independent of the media.

The current uproar is over

this Oct. 8, 2009, letter

from Jewish Federation leaders to UCI Chancellor

Michael Drake

shortly after students returned from an Olive Tree Initiative trip. It details a meeting students and UCI staff members had with

Aziz Duwaik

and were told to keep secret.

Duwaik has been the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council since his election in January 2006 and, according to one group of Palestinians, their president since the term of Mahmoud Abbas officially expired in January 2009. Others continue to follow Abbas.

Duwaik has long championed reconciliation of divided Palestinian factions, and that has put him in close contact with Hamas, which has been tied to terrorism and opposition to a two-state solution. Israel imprisoned him from August 2006 to June 2009 on charges of being a Hamas member. He has claimed he is not connected with the militant side of Hamas, only the political side, and has called the idea some Hamas members hold of a completely Palestinian state without Israel "a fantasy."

The ZOA sees Duwaik as all-Hamas, all-the-time. And because he helped try to keep the meeting with UCI students a secret, the ZOA wants the Olive Tree Initiative killed.

"The students were reportedly given two reasons to keep the meeting a secret," reads a statement from ZOA. "First, 'to avoid being detained upon reentering Israel from the West Bank or being held at the airport before leaving the country'; and second, to avoid being confronted 'with anyone who would have disagreed with this meeting had they known about it in advance--namely, Orange County Jewish community and leadership, and UCI administration.'"

The San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research fired a blast over the same letter last week. Here's an excerpt for the IJCR's statement:

IJCR urges UC Irvine to respond to this serious misuse of funds and gross violation of public trust. It is not known how many such meetings took place or whether UCI has arranged any meetings with Hamas since. Ironically, UCI obtained funding from the Jewish community to support the Olive Tree Initiative. Kenneth L. Marcus, Director of The Anti-Semitism Initiative at IJCR, commented, "It is inconceivable that UCI would expose its students to a recognized terrorist organization, and then try to conceal the matter from the public. This not only jeopardizes UCI's ability to address the anti-Semitism problem on its campus today, but also UCI's academic integrity."

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The Jewish Federation of Orange County has asked the university to investigate the planning and execution of the meeting between students and Duwaik.

University spokeswoman Cathy Lawhon told the Orange County Register that students meeting with people of various points of view is consistent with the Olive Tree Initiative mission. She added that there have been other UCI trips to the regions since the 2009 visit, but she was unaware of other meetings with Duwaik or Hamas leaders.

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